Letter written by Honourable Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand in response to a letter published in the letter column of the Stabroek News on September 27, 2023
I write in response to a letter contained in your letter columns of the 27th September 2023 titled “The Classroom Grant for Teachers.”
In short, the anonymous letter writer contradicts themself and complains about not having “rules” while at the same time contending that the rules are cumbersome and are not being followed or are being misinterpreted by their Head of school. He/she objects to accountability processes calling them “man-made bureaucratic procedures.” The letter is riddled with ignorance of our fiscal system, political hostility and innuendo and I will leave it up to your readers to decide whether the letter writer was genuine or throwing a wordy tantrum, political or otherwise.
For all who seek genuine clarity I offer the following:
- For years now the Ministry of Education has received complaints from teachers and parents alike that enough independence had not been given in the identification of needs of a classroom and procurement of products or services that would meet those needs resulting in (a) their classroom not being prepared and and/or appropriately and adequately maintained over the school year and (b) that the teachers themselves would have to expend their own salaries to change that reality.
- Similarly, parents have complained that they were being taxed daily to provide bleach, toilet paper, crayons and pay for test papers on lists so long and so expensive that they found educating their children unaffordable.
- Indeed, social media sites are replete with such complaints.
- The Government of Guyana through the Local Government Ministry or central Ministry of Education, provided in the respective budgets, over the years, amongst other things, for the purchase of janitorial, office and field supplies. There are specific items that can be purchased under these lines if the spenders are not to engage in financial impropriety and/or the criminal offence of misappropriation.
- There was no standardization of how these monies were spent over the years with different regions doing different things. For example, Georgetown schools would be given a grant value, where they would visit shops, secure an invoice, return said invoice to the Education Department where a cheque would be cut and paid to the relevant store. Other regions bought the goods they thought the schools needed and informed schools when to come and pick those up, which they did, and yet other Regions asked schools what they needed and bought some of that and delivered or had it picked up.
- After evaluation, all the abovementioned processes were either cumbersome and long and/or failed to meet the needs of the schools and their pupil or student occupants and the teachers of our system. For instance, buying in bulk would (a) invoke the public bidding process because of the large sums being expended, which inevitably led to goods reaching schools very late and which because the least expensive item is bought led to poor quality (play dough that couldn’t mold or roll or chalk that wouldn’t write on the blackboard rendering them useless). Additionally, buying in bulk failed to meet individual needs (e.g. 20 sheets of cardboard is bought every term for the same class and delivered dutifully when what was needed in a particular classroom in the third term is not carboard which said class had excess of but a staple machine to staple the students’ test papers etc.)
- In August of this year at the request of the Ministry of Education, the Government caused money to be appropriated to the Ministry of Education by the National Assembly for the purchase of janitorial, office and field supplies, by schools across the country. We announced that each school would be given a value per child. On the Coastland, per term, it would be $4,000 per child and in the Hinterland it would be $5,500 per child because of the higher costs therein and having regard to our aim for equity. It was announced at each distribution that the school would have to retain a percentage and the teachers would be given a percentage of the said money. For janitorial, because schoosl have common areas the school (Head-teacher) would retain 80% of the janitorial sum and the teachers each receive 20%. However, for office and field grants that would be reversed with teachers having access to 80% of the sum. The reason for the percentage allocation is obvious. Schools have more space to clean that are common than a teacher has for a classroom and teachers have more need for the office and field supplies than the school’s admin office. Where a school has less than 56 children, the school would get the value of money as though they had 56 children. Again, the reason is obvious. Regardless of how small a school is they would still have to provide for each class even if the class sizes are smaller.
- Lists of what could possibly comprise the various lines were provided with a clear directive that items may emerge that are not on the list and that once clearance was had that the purchase of those wouldn’t cause audit queries, they could be bought. Under janitorial, for instance, one can buy bleach and soap, disinfectant and brooms. Under office, paper and staples, cardboard and crayons and under field, raincoats and umbrellas etc. To give an example of something being needed that didn’t make the list, the Head of a Practical Instruction Centre asked if cement and stone can be bought under office supplies and while that wouldn’t have made the Ministry’s list, for his students that amounts to office supplies. So, the answer was “yes, in an appropriate quantity.” Further, The Ministry never indicated and would never indicate specific vendors or business entities from which a teacher or school may purchase items.
- We were clear that items that improve the asset stock of the Ministry and are categorized at capital in nature cannot be bought as those would amount to misappropriation. Capital investment costs all over the world are separated from current operational expenditure for the primary purpose of understanding how programs and initiatives are funded where capital investments are often one off in nature while recurrent costs tend to be needed on an annual basis. This is standard in fiscal public spaces.
- We were also clear that the sums distributed must be fully accounted for. Receipts, that are visible and authentic of purchases would be required and MUST be submitted as this program will be fully audited. Indeed, on each distribution as we have done with the Because We Care Cash Grant (which has never received any audit query relating to dishonesty or fraud) from the packing of the envelopes to the transportation and distribution of same, the entire process was live audited with the office of the Auditor General being fully present.
- We recognized and indicated that for Secondary schools the sums per child would be useless if given to each class (as the class teacher may be a Social Studies teacher who has no clue what the Chemistry teacher needs in the lab or the Music teacher needs in her studio) and recommended instead that schools have committees which determined how this money would best serve the student body. We encourage the full involvement of the PTAs, Boards and Village Council where appropriate.
- We asked schools to desist from asking parents to provide any janitorial, office or field supply as we are absolutely sure this sum is enough for one term per school for those items.
- We already know, from feedback, that in some primary schools Heads have given teachers their individual sums while in some schools the teachers have chosen to have the money treated as a bulk sum where groups of teachers would purchase different items that would then serve each classroom. We have deliberately allowed schools autonomy on how to run their program within the confines of remaining accountable and not breaching our financial or criminal laws.
- We have since received feedback that teachers are deeply grateful and pleased with this grant but that they would like more latitude in purchasing in their classrooms in service to their children. For example, teachers hold the view that they can use the money wisely to have enough left over to buy fans or whiteboards or water dispensers. Some of these items unfortunately are categorized as capital items and cannot be purchased this year.
- We have since begun discussions with the Ministry of Finance about this grant being offered as a subvention to schools rather than under the Line Items of Janitorial, Field and Office supplies. This, we believe would offer more latitude to teachers which in turn would offer a better service to our children even as we intend firmly to stay accountable. We have been assured by the Ministry of Finance that the request is being studied to provide a sensible solution that marries the Government’s intention to serve the nation’s children and their teachers and the Government’s desire to stay accountable.
Mr. Editor, I truly hope this helped to clarify for all, including your anonymous letter writer, the program and its intended benefits. I am aware that this is a new service and may suffer from some teething issues as far as roll out in individual schools go. Wherever we ask more than 12,000 teachers to enjoy a new service, there are likely to be differences (some good, some bad) in how our 1000 head teachers roll this out in their schools. It is my hope that this service would become such a habit in a year’s time that teachers will forget what it was like to struggle for basic tools of trade. In the meanwhile, we remain available to clarify for anyone who needs clarity any aspect of this program.
The Schools’ Grant Program is a good facility that responds to the repeated requests of teachers and parents in our Guyana. And we are very happy to roll it out.
The Honourable Minister of Education